Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Gift

2015, US/, directed by Joel Edgerton

A very solid slice of neo-Hitchcock, with plenty of well-crafted misdirection -- the film cycles through a couple of possible genre options before settling on something quite distinctive. First-time director Edgerton makes interesting use of the space in the film's key location, turning something attractive and transparent into an arena of alarm, even in the daytime, although unlike in Hitchcock I had a hard time establishing exactly the physical contours of the space. There's another Hitchcockian echo in the casting -- finding a different shade in someone like Jason Bateman, in particular. 

45 Years

2015, UK, directed by Andrew Haigh

From the large canvas of Bridge of Spies to the small, with two excellent performances from Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay -- especially Rampling, around whom the film revolves. The pacing and damp, chilly setting are perhaps a little too on the nose in terms of the relationship to the central story of a longstanding marriage under sudden duress, but the sense of unspoken tension is very strong, even alarming at times, and the final few minutes are, to my mind, exquisitely uncomfortable. 

Bridge of Spies

2015, US, directed by Steven Spielberg

Absolutely classical in construction, if not always its shot choices, and I mean that entirely as a compliment -- this is Spielberg entering grand-old-man territory, absolutely in control of his craft and making expert use of the possibilities afforded by the double narrative of the film (the first part focuses on the trial of a spy in the US, the second on the release of an American spy-plane pilot from the USSR). The doubling is echoed time and again in juxtapositions and contrasts -- everything down to the way that Mark Rylance and Tom Hanks sniffle through parts of the film, though also in larger ways, such as the implicit comparison between two different kinds of show trial. On the visual level, the colour palette is used to create yet more contrast -- the striking blues and wide open spaces of the American air force base against, say, the grey, hulking streets of East Berlin. It's not often that I celebrate the virtues of a big budget but you sure see the dollars up there on the screen, most notably in those intensely detailed Berlin cityscapes, although there's a real pleasure in the recreated Brooklyn of the opening, too.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Step By Step

1946, US, directed by Phil Rosen

Not a good film, but quite interesting to see again the kind of plotline that was deemed useful in the early post-war period -- unmasking Nazi spies operating on American soil. Lawrence Tierney must have been quite the beefcake at the time since the film did sterling work to keep him in his swimsuit for an extended period of time, though that's about the only contribution he makes, with his line delivery rarely rising above that you might expect in a cast read-through.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Mistress America

2015, US, directed by Noah Baumbach

While Greta Gerwig is certainly fun, and there is the occasional, very unexpected, moment of visual wit (Baumbach does not strike me as a director who has a terrific sense of the camera's possibilities), for the most part the fine line between celebration and subversion seemed to me to be rather fluffed. On a minor note, I rather enjoyed, for most of the film, the attempts of one young fellow to defend himself from his jealous girlfriend -- a gag that reminded me of Lucien, the lovelorn teen in Un Eléphant, ça trompe énormément

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Black Angel

1946, US, directed by Roy William Neill

An inadvertent last film for Roy William Neill, and by the looks of it a shame that his career was cut short because this looks a great deal more interesting than the programmers he had been doing before that (even if some of them, especially the Sherlock Holmes pictures, are in their way quite dear to me). Dan Duryea is front and centre  in a race-against-time picture helping to reveal the truth so a man can be freed from death row, and Duryea's unusually sympathetic, at least by Dan Duryea standards. The picture borrows quite shamelessly from other fare of the period, and thus the flavour of mid-1940s Lang and Siodmak is never far away (particularly in some of the unreliable narration). Peter Lorre throws in an enjoyably oily turn, though the actor doesn't look in the fullest of health. 

Monday, December 07, 2015

The Dark Corner

1946, US, directed by Henry Hathaway

Like Douglas Sirk's Lured, this is an atypical role for Lucille Ball, at least by the standards of her later work, although it's a less "straight" part than the 1947 film since she's something of a spitfire secretary type, here, not averse to a spot of banter. Still, the setting is a fairly typical noir backdrop, with a reasonably complex plot to throw up the occasional red herring. I especially liked the highly efficient opening: the speed of the setup is terrific, as you're hooked within a minute or so by the promise of much intriguing backstory, while the supporting cast is full of gems in addition to Ball. The gradual reveal of Webb's character is also quite deliciously creepy. 

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

The Night Has a Thousand Eyes

1948, US, directed by John Farrow

Not a great film, but one that certainly makes solid use of its resources, most notably Edward G. Robinson -- and most specifically the great man's voice, something that Billy Wilder had already exploited to such notable effect in Double Indemnity. Speaking of that film, cinematographer John Seitz is behind the camera here, too, and that surely accounts for the film's look, as well some of the strikingly mobile shots, perhaps the most eye-catching a quite terrific crane shot during a stage performance by Robinson, who plays a mind-reader suddenly endowed with the actual gift he purports to possess. There's another lovely shot later on, the camera reversing away as Robinson packs his bags and prepares to abandon his life as everything crumbles around him -- the camera seems to echo the distancing in which the character is engaged.

Kiss of Death

1947, US, directed by Henry Hathaway

A gangland tale grounded with location shooting, a little awkward in its narrative construction, which has a stop-start quality, but often very atmospheric, though it's most memorable for an indelible debut by Richard Widmark, as a laughing, and obviously psychopathic, hoodlum -- the scene where he shoves a defenseless woman down a staircase remains shocking today and must surely have been deeply alarming to audiences of the time, even those already immersed in noir

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Le Gendarme et les gendarmettes

1982, France, directed by Jean Girault

This is a contribution to the Late Films Blogathon hosted, as every year, by Shadowplay-er extraordinaire David Cairns. 

A picture that counts double in the late film stakes: director Jean Girault died during filming of star Louis de Funès's swansong, the last of their dozen collaborations stretching back to the 1960s. Though their work was never of the highest cinematic order, it's still hard to imagine anyone choosing this particular picture as an epitaph. De Funès looks visibly aged, diminished by the heart condition that plagued him for some years, and indeed he's offscreen for lengthy chunks of the film, suggesting that the script was constructed very much with his absence in mind.

The sixth in a series of films that began in 1964, to which the law of diminishing returns applied with brutal effect (imagine the Pink Panther films, without the benefit of starting at a reasonable peak), Le Gendarme et les gendarmettes scrapes the inspirational barrel utterly dry, and de Funès is very much an old dog going through his old tricks. I've always struggled with his particular schtick, almost always preferring his more subtle onscreen partners, most famously Bourvil in the 1960s, though here he’s paired with Michel Galabru, who has roughly the physiognomy and the subtlety of a warthog, and Girault doesn't make any attempt to rein him in (whereas a director like Jean-Pierre Mocky could deploy Galabru's features to more sophisticated comic ends).

Both actors played in all of the Gendarme pictures, which made for some pretty superannuated cops by 1982, though the plot doesn't bother clarifying why they're still hanging around the station house when they should have been pensioned off. Ah, yes, plot, or in this case a device engineered purely to fill the screen with a succession of comely women who play a quartet of gendarmerie cadets as part an "innovative" training program. One of the four is African, and the daughter of an African president to boot, which provides the cue for a ham-fistedly offensive sequence in which she is depicted in tribal garb -- dancing, of course, as a prelude to a cannibalistic feast. Fans of workplace harassment -- all of it cheerfully tolerated, naturally -- will be heaven here, as will those who believe that female police officers are best attired in garb that looks like that of a Pan Am stewardess circa 1965. That the cadets, entirely predictably, emerge victorious over both their criminal adversaries and their lecherous supervisors doesn't quite excuse all that has come before...

Truth be told, this is not the first year I planned to write about this particular picture but getting through this kind of thing is a slog -- there really are astonishingly few redeeming features, not unlike Jean Gabin's final film, also directed by Jean Girault -- a real career-end specialist, that one.


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Boston, Massachusetts, United States